Quick tips for iPad sketching

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How to sketch faceless (e.g., PaperFaces) portraits and landscapes on an iPad, with the app Paper.

How do you draw or sketch on an iPad with Paper by FiftyThree? What iPad stylus is the best for creating art? Why does it burn down there when I pee? Wait a minute… I don’t have an answer for that last one, but I think I can help with the first two.

Mastering Paper

Since publishing this short guide I’ve gone through several iPad styli and written tutorials expanding on the techniques teased here. Be sure to check out my Mastering Paper tutorials to learn the app’s basics and how I create realistic portraits and other pieces of art with it.


LunaTik Touch Pen on top of an iPad 3rd generation with colored markers on a table

Update: I’ve since moved on from the LunaTik Touch Pen to using FiftyThree’s Pencil instead.

Every drawing is different and I try to keep that in mind before opening Paper for iOS. With that said, the following are some general steps and techniques I utilize when drawing and painting on a 3rd generation iPad with retina screen.

One thing to remember is, experimenting with all the tools and drawing everyday will up your game. I’ve learned so much doing just that for the last couple of months.

Block out your composition

When I begin a new PaperFaces portrait, I start by sketching an imperfect square with the pen tool. I use the square as a rough guide for the composition because I like the look of shapes and lines bleeding outside the border. An alternative would be to use the eraser to straighten up the edges, if you like things neat and tidy. You could of course forgo the square and fill the entire page — whatever works for you.

Usually I pencil in quick gestural outlines as a guide for painting forms later. Other times I jump right to the background and splash in layer upon layer of watercolor. It really depends on the source material and if the background has enough detail to bother with.

Watercolor and ink sketch of a woman with black hair.

Watercolor without water

If you ask me, this tool is what sets Paper for iOS apart from all the other iPad drawing apps like Procreate and Sketchbook Pro. I use the watercolor brush in two ways… well maybe three.

When crisp edges aren’t a concern, I’ll block in color with the watercolor brush. I achieve continuous tones by painting slowly and never removing the stylus (or my finger) from the screen. If I want to create a smooth gradation in color I move the brush progressively faster to fade it out.

Highlights and shadows

Brightening existing areas is achieved with the watercolor brush. Mix enough white into a color and the brush can be used to lighten. This technique is perfect for adding highlights or correcting mistakes when an eraser’s edges might be too harsh. When working with white my general rule of thumb is to move fast. If you stick around in one location too long it’ll lighten too fast. The same is true when using full black…

To shade existing areas apply a darker hue, gray, or black. For backgrounds I tend to use a light blue-gray to paint in shadows. I prefer to start light and layer glazes to add depth and contrast gradually. When working on a subjects’ face, I’ll use a dull brown to add dimension and shape. Applying a coat of gray or brown works wonders on hair as well.

Filling shapes with ink

I don’t use the fountain pen or marker tools all that much because I like my illustrations to have a more painterly feel to them. These tools are perfect for covering large irregular shaped areas with a base color — like hair.

They also come in handy when I need to rework or make adjustments (more precise than the eraser) to something I already drew or painted.

Painting of a faceless bearded man in oragne wearing a stray hat.

Two things to keep in mind when working with the marker tool:

  1. It has some translucency to it. If you draw over something, it will most likely show through. Because of this, the marker can help you shade more precisely than the brush since the tip is narrower.
  2. Black, white, and some dark colors are opaque, meaning they will cover up anything you draw over.

The multipurpose Pencil

I saved the best for last. When I first started using Paper for iOS, I was enamored with the thick and thins of the fountain pen and how true to life the watercolor brush handled. But then I rediscovered an old friend, in a digital world — Mr. Pencil.

Need to lightly sketch out a face… pull out the pencil. Need to smoothen out some edges… pull out the pencil. Need to add shadows and highlights… pull out the pencil.

It has so many uses, that by default I spend most of my time with it. My absolute favorite is to use a white on top of a black (or dark background) and sketch in highlights. It’s sick how easy achieving realistic looking hair is when using the pencil.

How to draw hair

Read in detail how I draw hair as part of my Mastering Paper by FiftyThree series of tutorials.

Black and white drawing of a woman's hair and mouth.

Closing thoughts and questions

I hope some of this has been helpful. To better describe and show my process, I’ve recorded speed paintings done with an iPad 3, Paper by FiftyThree, the Mac OS X application Reflector, and edited with Adobe AfterEffects.

I’ve taken the liberty of embedding a video playlist below, demonstrating how I use Paper by FiftyThree to paint portraits. (ProTip: watch it fullscreen). Feel free to comment, like, or subscribe to my channel if you like what you see.

If I missed anything or you’re looking for more pointers leave a comment below or tweet me.

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About the author

Hi I’m Michael Rose. Just another boring, bearded, tattooed, time traveling designer from Buffalo New York. I maintain several open source projects and occassionally blog.

Glitched photo of Michael Rose with a long beard.



  1. Virginia Killmore wrote on

    Is the difference between the polymer and alloy pens just the materials used to make them. (case) When I went to the website and thought i understood that to be the saw the only difference and since I am prone to loose things I thought the polymer was a better choice?

  2. Michael Rose wrote on

    Yeah I’m pretty sure that’s the only difference. As far as I know the tips are the same, which is all that really matters. The alloy pens are probably heavier because of the material, but that shouldn’t affect drawing too much.

    You should be fine getting the cheaper plastic one and saving your money.

  3. Katie Ryan wrote on

    Is there any way to get the greyish background edited out on the paper app? I’m trying to use some lettering I did for a blog header.

  4. Michael Rose wrote on

    Yes there is a way to save it without the background. Just zoom out the page and hit the Share circle button. Then if you tap on the Camera Roll icon it’ll give you an option to toggle to background on/off. Just turn it off, save to your Camera Roll and then you can email or share it through Photostream.

    It’ll give you a .png file with a transparent background.

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